The landscape of gun shows in Florida is one of change. Love him or hate him, Kahled Akkawi, the owner of Shoot Straight, is having a profound impact on how small retailers sell their wares in one of the nation’s leading firearms markets. And while the final page is yet to be written, it seems likely that customers will be happy with some of the changes Akkawi is making, while others feel it could tank their business.
Based in Apopka, Florida, Shoot Straight has grown steadily since its inception in 1979. As of September, there are eight Shoot Straight locations. In February, Akkawi purchased a property in Sarasota, Florida, for $1.5 million, and he has stated that he plans to open yet another store there later this year.
Shooting Sports Retailer contacted the Shoot Straight headquarters when preparing this story, but staffers declined to answer any questions and Akkawi did not respond to our requests for an interview.
In 2007, Shoot Straight was awarded “Retailer of the Year” by SHOT Business magazine. It’s the largest gun store chain and dealer in Florida, and according to the Shoot Straight website, it stocks and sells more guns than any other retailer in the southeastern United States.
Given all of that, Akkawi’s expansion into running gun shows probably isn’t a big surprise. First, Shoot Straight purchased Florida Gun Shows; then early this year Akkawi bought Suncoast Gun Shows, subsuming them into the Florida Gun Shows brand and making Shoot Straight the largest gun show promoter in the Sunshine State.
Strong Arm Tactics
Both Florida Gun Shows and Suncoast Gun Shows already had a reputation for telling vendors they couldn’t enter competing shows.
According to a March 4, 2014, column in the Suncoast News Herald-Tribune, Victor Bean, the former owner of Florida Gun Shows, sent an email to his vendors warning them that they “must be vigilant of forces that threaten our existence.” Bean said further that he would refuse to take reservations from vendors who attend a competing show held within three weeks of one of his shows in the same metropolitan area, and he would be monitoring compliance.
Suncoast Gun Shows took a similar stance. According to a Herald-Tribune story in February, a Suncoast staff member sent an email to dealers saying if they attended a competing show they would be banned from participating in any future Suncoast shows.
Akkawi has continued this policy. Dealers who had been able to walk a line between Florida Gun Shows, Suncoast Gun Shows and some of the smaller shows found themselves forced to choose. They took to social media, posting photos showing returned checks and one-sentence letters that said simply, “You are no longer welcome as an exhibitor or customer at any future Florida Gun Shows, Inc.”
No Big Deal?
Casey Burke, owner of Southern Guns and one of the dealers affected by this policy, decided to reach out to Akkawi. In mid-July he sat down with Akkawi face to face to discuss the matter.
On his Facebook page, Burke wrote, “Had a meeting this week with Kahled. I learned a lot about him, and although this policy I don’t completely agree with, I do respect him as a person and a business owner. He has worked for what he has built and like any successful entrepreneur he has his share of friends and enemies.”
Burke went on to say business is business and although some things are not always seen to be fair or best for all parties involved, one day he will be back doing his shows.
“But for now, we do what is best for Southern Guns LLC. I do respect Kahled and consider him a new friend.”
Burke said that he and Akkawi have agreed to disagree about his policy.
“He’s successful at what he does, and his shows are not as much of a dictatorship as they first seemed,” Burke said. For example, he said, since Akkawi doesn’t do a show in West Palm Beach, he doesn’t care whether or not vendors participate in a show there.
“The Lakeland Gun and Rifle Show has been doing business longer than he has, so he allows vendors to do that show even though he has shows there.”
Burke said he has visited with Akkawi several times.
“He tells me about the attendance at his shows, and the improvements, and how things are going very well,” he said. “People who are doing his shows are doing really well. But are we creating a situation where we’re only going to have one promoter (of gun shows) in the state? I don’t know if his business model is a monopoly or if he’s just trying to protect the business that he has.”
Other Promoters Balk
Jay King is the operating manager of the Gun Show Team, which puts on Florida Gun & Knife shows in south Florida. He said his business is hanging on by a thread because of Florida Gun Shows’ policy.
“There are anti-trust laws that he’s violating,” he said. “Then there’s the law on unfair trade practices.”
King said many vendors still want to do his shows but have had to choose between Florida Gun & Knife shows and Florida Gun Shows.
“I’m friends with many of my vendors, and we talk,” he said. “They’ve told me, ‘It’s my livelihood. I can’t do both.’ ”
King said prior to the enforcement of the noncompete rule he was sold out at every show; now he has lost a majority of his vendors.
“We used to have 45 exhibitors register with us,” he said. “Now I’m down to less than 18. People are starting to come through the doors and say, ‘Where are the vendors?’ We cancelled a show this month because we didn’t have enough vendors.”
Both the promotors of some of the smaller venues and their vendors have raised concerns about the legality of the noncompete policy. Some promoters have talked with city, county and state officials — and even the ATF and the FBI — attempting to determine whether or not what Akkawi is doing falls under the law regarding monopolies. So far, they have gotten little interest in the issue.
Danny Alvarez, a Tampa business attorney who writes gun trusts and exhibits at gun shows, has looked into the matter.
“The legend is that [Akkawi] built his business from the trunk of his car to what it is,” Alvarez said. “If that’s what he’s done before, you can expect good things to come from the gun shows as they are.”
Alvarez said that as far as he can determine, the noncompete policy is entirely legal.
“It feels odd and I get that,” he said. “People think it’s anti-competition. His competition is other gun shows, and he’s trying to give a good product. As a business attorney I totally understand that.”
Akkawi can legally choose to do business with whomever he wants to, when he wants to and how he wants to, Alvarez said.
“I’ve read some posts from some angry vendors,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much they can do, other than join [Akkawi] or not join him, and then figure out in the new world how to make their living doing what they do. Once these shows get established as the ones you want to be a part of, it will be more expensive to vend with him because he’s bringing more value, but you’ll get more bang out of your buck as a vendor.”
As to the legal challenges other promoters are raising, including charges that he bullies vendors who participate in his shows, Alvarez said he hasn’t seen anything that the law will support.
“If he’s doing anything illegal, I haven’t found it yet,” he said. “Does Coca-Cola bully RC Cola? Coca-Cola is an enormous company with tons of clout, but nothing stops RC from putting their product out there. Do they have to hustle more? Yes. Do they have to do things a little bit differently? Yes. Do they get the door shut in their face sometimes? Yes. But if they’re going to survive, they figure out how.”
Alvarez said he’s already heard of smaller gun shows popping up as alternatives to the big shows.
“Maybe we’ll have competing show circuits,” he said. “When I was young and was first buying guns, we went to gun shows to find a good bargain and see the latest stuff. Now it’s just a place where you see everything at once; it’s not a place where you get deals. Maybe this will force competition and ultimately be good for the consumer.”
As far as the promoters who are having a difficult time competing with Akkawi are concerned, it’s a case of adapt or go out of business.
“This is the new business landscape they’re going to have to deal with,” Alvarez said. “Every one of those vendors made a choice based on what they had been offered.”
“If [competition] sends you back to the drawing board,” he added, “that’s an uncomfortable place to be, but it’s the reality of the new business landscape.”